Updated: Jan 5
The Universe versus the Pinecone
As part of our #2suitcases1laptop travel adventures, we meandered our way into Croatia for an unplanned one-week visit. Croatia is known for its beautiful coastline, waterfalls, and forests so a quick search on Airbnb experiences led me to Aleks, a local guide with 40 years experience offering off the beaten path hikes that sounded unique and far from the typical tourist excursions.
I was the only one who signed up that day so was able to customize the experience and after a short chat about what I enjoyed doing, he modified the day to focus on more forest time deep in the Paklenica National Park. We drove up the Velebit mountain range on razor-sharp cutbacks on an unseasonably warm day, what they call “grandmother summer” akin to our Indian summers. Velebit is a mythical Croatian mountain that has a cult-like status for the Croatian people. It is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve that is 145 km long and 30 km wide forming part of the Dinaric Alps and located along the scenic Adriatic coast.
I’ve thought a lot about what happened that day. I’m an experienced hiker having done Kilimanjaro and Tour Mont Blanc but for some reason I was feeling “off” carrying some unusual negative energy since my arrival in Croatia. It was a beautiful fall day with long shadows from the bright sunlight peeking through the treetops and a light bura wind that blew leaves into a gentle ballet along the forest floor. We stopped in a grove of beech trees and sat on a carpet of golden leaves at the base of one that captured our attention.
I introduced Aleks to Forest Therapy with what we call “pleasures of presence” opening up each of our senses, orienting us to the place and slowing down the parasympathetic nervous system. We noticed birdsong nearby and, in the distance, and discussed how the sounds were always there, we had been too busy moments before to notice with our talking and walking. We deepened into a discussion about the pace of life and how people show up on his hikes complaining about work, stress, health and relationships. And after time in the forest, how typically our mind clears, our breath deepens and our life issues fade away. We talked about the healing benefits of being in a forest environment, how phytoncides, negative ions, the colour green, birdsong, fractal patterns all conspire to soothe, to boost our immune system and mental health. Then we got into more deeply personal topics that will remain between us and the trees.
We decided to keep walking feeling a bit altered somehow. Connected. Calm. Closer. We walked uphill for another 15 minutes and stopped for lunch on a ridge overlooking a deep valley and many peaks all around us. At that point we discussed our options—keep going deeper into the mountains or take another shorter route back.
This is where things start to get really weird. I was feeling nervous. I don’t know why. As we turned back, he pointed to a steep ridge and said, “We’re going there.” I thought he was joking and laughed. He said, “It’s not as hard as it looks. Let’s walk in that direction and we can decide.” My inner voice was quietly saying, “I don’t want to be here.” It’s what Oprah describes as a whisper from the universe. I heard it but ignored it as it didn’t make sense to me. This was not a difficult hike. I could do it easily. Then in that moment, I had a fleeting question…had Aleks ever had to deal with an injured client on his hikes? That was my state of mind when I stepped on a pinecone, my foot rolled under me and behind me like a pretzel. I heard the snap. I knew something was broken. I knew we were fucked. The first words out of my mouth were “Oh my god, I’m so so sorry.” I knew getting me off that mountain was going to be a whole thing. It turns Aleks had never had an issue like this before. And although he always brought his first aid kit on his hikes, for some reason, he forgot to grab it that morning. We tried to walk, hop, crawl but the pain was excruciating when I tried to put any weight on my foot or even hop on one leg. The swelling was expanding quickly. I was sitting next to an old, dried pile of dung and I was shivering. He asked if I could slide myself down a few feet into the sunshine and I slid on my bottom over to a pretty spot to wait until I could be rescued.
To become a certified forest therapy guide, wilderness first aid training is a requirement. I remember joking that as guides we are rarely not more than a few kilometres from a main road and some of the training seemed like overkill for a forest therapy experience. But in that moment, as I sat in my sunny patch in the middle of the Paklenica National Park, I knew it was going to be a long wait for help. Being in Croatia, I had no idea what that support might look like or cost and with dark three hours away my mind started working through what I learned in the training about food, water, shelter and stabilizing the injury. Fortunately, Aleks was a 40-year veteran of these mountains and a well-known nature photographer so he had great relationships. He called a friend who worked at mountain search and rescue first to ask for help and once our coordinates were sent, a rescue plan was quickly put into action.
After about an hour, we heard voices nearby. The first on the scene were Jure and Frane, two gentlemen who work in the park. They spoke very little English, but one came over and gently taped my shoulder as if to say “there there, it’s okay.” They assessed the situation and called the rescue team in Zadar, an hour and a half away to say they did not need to come because they along with my guide would be able to carry me down to the trailhead. They came with a mountain stretcher—a handmade contraption with components from two plastic sleds, lawnmower handles, backpack straps and a giant single plastic wheel for the bottom. As they struggled to assemble this concoction, two horses with their foals appeared in my direct line of sight like a surreal dream that I found comforting.
Once assembled I slid onto the stretcher, got strapped in and away we went downhill. It was a bumpy ride but they were slow and steady. One kept saying, “step by step” over and over again. I don’t know if it was for my benefit or his but their care and compassion was evident. I did some deep breathing and reiki on the way down as I watched the blue sky and tree canopy above marvelling at the beauty of this place and grateful for these kind humans.
About 30 minutes later, I heard more voices and looked up to see an army of young fit men in red uniforms. The rescue team had arrived in full force and took over. There were 10 of them and in shifts they efficiently carried the stretcher two at the front, two at the back and one on each side and they picked up the pace. More focused on the extraction than my comfort they ran quickly to their jeep at the trailhead. I was seated in the jeep, given some water and driven to Alek’s nearby truck. As he headed down the winding road off the mountain back to Zadar, I was awed by the sweeping sunset views over Zadar and the Adriatic Sea in the distance. Again thanks to Alek’s great relationships, a friend who worked at the Zadar General Hospital gave him instructions for where to take me and what to do. She jokingly suggested that this accident was caused by the forest fairies who wanted me to stay with them.
My partner Andrew was already waiting for our arrival and after an x-ray, plaster cast and another x-ray, I was discharged and told to see a doctor in ten days. It took under two hours with a total bill of $170 CDN.
Here is what I’ve learned so far:
LISTEN: The number one lesson for me is to listen to my intuition, what Oprah calls the whispers from the universe. If you ignore them, they will hit you like a ton of bricks. I didn’t listen because my ego was telling me I could do the hike so I didn’t speak up and kept going when I should have stopped. I had been carrying dark energy for a few days prior to this experience. I could not explain the negativity, I didn’t feel like myself and I now have a new awareness of what this feels like and how to clear and protect my energy which I believe will help me better relate to my reiki clients who are experiencing this.
ASK FOR HELP: I don’t like asking for help. I’m the helper. It’s a big part of my identity. I love to help people, help them solve their problems often even when they haven’t asked or even wanted my help. This has been a new awareness of mine and now with this leg, I need help. I need a lot of help from Andrew for basics like taking a shower and meals. I need to rely on others particularly while travelling to help navigate the system and the language. I am learning to ask for it and accept it when offered. I understand that there is some pleasure in the giving and receiving.
PATIENCE: My mother always used to say “patience is a virtue” and I would reply that this is not a virtue I have. But it is something I have been working on over the past few years. With a broken leg and slow painful movement on crutches, I am getting things done when others are available to help…not necessarily when I want to do something. I notice my impatience and sit back, observe it and wait. Hopefully I can get into a walking cast to have more independence but for now, patience is my mantra.
CONTROL VS SURRENDER: We have no control. Of anything. When I left my corporate job, I made the decision to let go of trying to plan every single detail of not just my life, but everyone around me. When I oversaw corporate events, we had contingency plans for contingency plans and thought through every possible scenario. When I left the bank, I went through a metaphorical letting go of the steering wheel. This has been the biggest shift in my life and with our #2suitcases1laptop put into practice daily as our new lifestyle requires that we not get too far ahead of ourselves. Much of what we have planned has changed and will continue to change.
SPIRITUAL ENLIGHTENMENT: Pinecones are used as a symbol for the third eye due to their resemblance to the pineal gland which is considered the “seat of the soul”, the epicenter of the evolved Human Consciousness and associated with the third eye chakra. The third eye is believed to allow extra sight, i.e. it allows perception beyond literal sight. The use of pinecones in Hindu imagery and other cultures is a symbol of supernatural perception. The last photo I took before my accident of a pinecone as I was noticing its fractal patterns, the sacred geometry, and the Fibonacci sequence.
KINDNESS: As a temporarily disabled person, I’ve become an observer of others’ reactions. Some people awkwardly don’t make eye contact. Some seem to look at me with judgment or curiosity and some look with compassion, a kind smile and instinctive offer to help. Here are just a few of the dozens of acts of kindness I am grateful to have experienced:
To the bus driver who made arrangements for me to stay seated while going through the border from Croatia to Slovenia;
To our host family in Slovenia who invited us to stay with them and helped us navigate medical care, sightseeing and introducing us to Slovenian history and culture. I had never met this family before and I am emotional when I think about how warmly they welcomed us into their home and their lives;
To my family and friends back home who reached out, checked in and sent their loving support and helped when we got home;
To the airlines who made the travelling effortless along the way.
JUST KEEP GOING: When the accident first happened, my initial reaction was to go back home to Canada. After a few weeks to regroup with friends in Slovenia and a plaster cast that needed to stay on for six to eight weeks, we decided to continue to travel and modify our plans as needed. I was limited in some of what I could do-many views were from a car window instead of close-up views from a trail or the ocean, but I'm proud of our decision to keep going. We explored every corner of Slovenia, saw some of Italy and spent the last 16 days in the beautiful Azores, Portugal.
At the time of this writing, it is 10 weeks since the accident. Today I received the good news from the orthopedist that surgery is not required and I can cautiously begin walking and physiotherapy. I have a new appreciation for so many of the things I took for granted like the ability to walk and spend time alone in the forest and I am grateful for my partner, my family, and my friends for their help every literal step of the way. Buddha says, “Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” I will continue to learn from this experience and find the blessings within it.